Warning: This story contains references to mental health, suicide and sensitive subjects that may be upsetting to some readers.
A Salmon Arm woman is raising a red flag over Interior Health’s handling of her struggles with mental health, saying she’s one of many people falling through the cracks of a broken system.
Serene Harcus has been on leave from her job as a health-care worker since September 2019. She said she was going through a nervous breakdown at that time, with mental and physical symptoms piling up due to abuse suffered in her personal life.
“I was totally falling apart,” she said, adding that she began feeling suicidal.
Her employer’s wellness coordinator encouraged her to take time off, she said, but she didn’t qualify for medical employment insurance and instead went on long-term disability benefits. After that ran out, she would need to wait five months for any more help.
The same day she decided to take time off work, Harcus went into the Canadian Mental Health Association offices needing to talk to someone because she was ready to take her own life. She said she was told that because she works for Interior Health, CMHA couldn’t help.
Harcus explained Interior Health recently switched to a new internal system in which the health authority handles its own employees’ health-care needs. She said outside resources are no longer accessible to IH employees, and she wasn’t able to access CMHA services because of this.
“The wires got crossed somewhere,” said Harcus. “They’re not helping the way they’re supposed to, with any sort of consistency, and our provider isn’t stepping up.”
Dawn Dunlop, CMHA’s executive director, said while she couldn’t issue a statement specific to Harcus, she encouraged Harcus to reach out again to the organization.
“Navigating the mental-health system and community resources is a very treacherous pathway and it’s not a one-size-fits-all,” said Dunlop.
Lana Schultze, Interior Health’s corporate director of workplace health and safety, also couldn’t supply a specific comment.
“Regarding the contracted services from Interior Health’s Employee and Family Assistance Plan (EFAP) provider, the definition of eligible employees includes full-time, part-time and casual employees,” reads Schultze’s statement to the Observer.
“The services provided include confidential, professional short-term counseling services to help employees and their family members address personal or work-related concerns. Access to resources and information related to physical and mental health. Assistance is provided to help employees manage their work and personal life effectively.”
Schultze also said additional counselling opportunities are provided through extended health benefits and these benefits differ depending on a number of factors, including “specific bargaining association.”
“Community-based services such as the Canadian Mental Health Association are not linked to employment and as such are available to all who meet service providers’ criteria,” Schultze said in her statement.
In February 2020, Harcus’ long-term disability carrier (LTD), Canada Life Assurance, sent her to a specialist doctor in Vancouver. Harcus said there was not a treatment option she was ready for at that time.
“I’m highly agoraphobic, absolutely broken, they fly me to Vancouver first thing in the morning, I did a four-hour intense go-through of every trauma in my entire life from birth to present day, and they flew me back the same day with no support set up for after, no nothing.”
“Within three days I tried to take my life.”
Harcus said she was begging for help at this point and her LTD carrier didn’t have a counselling option for her.
Eventually, Harcus said she was offered a psychologist to see regularly and an occupational therapist, but as soon as she started getting into exposure therapy, the programs were pulled.
She said the resources she’s contacted and the carrier for the LTD have said they’ve done all they can for her and she is at a point where she should be able to work.
Harcus said her doctor has agreed with her she’s not at the point where she can leave the house much, let alone sustain a long-term job as a care aide, her chosen profession, so she’s unsure what to do next.
“Interior Health has a duty to accommodate, but there’s nothing. It’s all just kind of a joke.”
On March 17, Harcus said she received her last support payment. She is currently going through an appeals process with her union to fight the carriers, trying to receive more help.
Harcus said the paperwork for medical employment insurance, Canada Pension Plan disability, and Person with Disabilities payments have taken months. She has applied for income assistance for housing but has been denied. Service Canada has only been able to re-submit forms she has already sent and Harcus said there aren’t any avenues she hasn’t explored.
“It’s really disheartening, I just don’t even know where a person goes at this point. I’ve been screaming for three years.”
Harcus said she has had other care aides and health professionals empathising with her struggles and going through the same issues, posting comments on the GoFundMe she has set up to help pay bills.
“It was time to beg the community, which is humiliating and powerful at the same time, I guess. I’m admitting I can’t do this by myself. The system is broken.
“We’re in a country that’s supposed to have these amazing resources and so many people are falling through the cracks. A person should not have to beg for their life because of mental health.”
Harcus said she has been surviving on the kindness of friends and family, and collecting food bank donations and bottles to return for cash.